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Westlake Hospital controversy could put patients, community at risk

Supporters of Westlake Hospital in Melrose Park were expected to make a last-ditch effort Friday to keep the hospital open | via Facebook

The fight to keep Westlake Hospital open in Melrose Park couldn’t have come at a worse time.

Here’s why.

Distrust is at an all-time high between community residents and developers of major projects. This just adds more controversy to that pot.

For instance, a lawsuit was filed Wednesday by the Grassroots Collaborative and Illinois Raise Your hand for Public Education to block a $900 million tax-increment-financing subsidy for the proposed $6 million Lincoln Yards project.

Last month, a small group trying to block the construction of the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park got a $100,000 grant from the Reva and David Logan Foundation to keep up their fight.

And the Village of Melrose Park is now suing Pipeline Health, a firm based in Los Angeles, for allegedly making fraudulent claims when it acquired two hospitals in the western suburbs, and one in Chicago.

“They swore under oath to keep Westlake open for at least two years without any changes to it,” said state Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch (D-Hillside), who is also a hospital trustee and is fighting to keep the hospital open.

“They swore under oath not to make any changes to its charity care. They swore under oath they were going to keep this place open and never, never said anything about closing it until two weeks after they bought it,” Welch told me.

Dr. Eric Whitaker, the founder of Chicago-based health-care investment TWG partners — which bought Westlake with Pipeline Health, has denied promising Welch that Westlake Hospital would not be closed.

“I am disturbed by the fact that this guy is out there lying on me and he is being duplicitous,” Whitaker said, adding the hospital’s financial situation wasn’t entirely clear at the time of the purchase.

“We had already gotten approval from the state to change ownership. We were supposed to close the deal in September and ended up not closing the deal until February. By the time we got the financials, it was a very different picture,” he said.

“West Suburban and Weiss were both profitable. By the end of the year all three were losing money and the losses went from $12 million to $31 million. Westlake lost $14 million in 2018,” Whitaker said.

Whitaker is an accomplished African American physician with a long track record in establishing successful community health-care initiatives.

But he is also known for being a close friend of former President Barack Obama.

That makes this dispute even more damaging.

After all, this is exactly what the activists who are demanding that the Obama Presidential Foundation sign a community benefits agreement are worried about: Promises are easy to make and a lot harder to keep.

Additionally, Welch and Whitaker are both powerful leaders in their respective fields, and this public fight is bound to inflict wounds in the African American community that will be slow to heal.

“Dr. Whitaker was assigned to people like me,” said Welch, referring to Whitaker’s partnership with Pipeline. “Every time I talked to him, he said, ‘We are looking forward to working with you, and we are all about community hospitals,’ ” he said.

“We had five or six conversations dating from September of last year through the purchase. Not until Feb. 15 did he call me and leave me a voice message telling me that they were closing the hospital. We are going to fight this every step of the way. People are angry because of the deceit,” Welch said.

But Whitaker points out that Welch and state. Rep. Kathleen Willis voted for a measure that cost Westlake $4 million in additional state funding, adding to the hospital’s financial woes.

“We had to make a decision. Are we going to have to lose all of the hospitals or close this one,” Whitaker said.

He makes a valid point.

Frankly, it is not in the best interest of patients for government to force a for-profit hospital to remain open when the owners claim they cannot provide adequate patient care.

But Tuesday, a Cook County Circuit Court judge ordered Pipeline Health to restore services at the 225-bed hospital by Thursday or face fines of $200,000 a day.

Pipeline countered with an offer to give the 230-bed hospital to Melrose Park at no cost.

“It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Pipeline Health is making a last-second political stunt and disingenuous offer that shirks the responsibility that they have to our community,” Welch responded in a statement.

Pipeline Health has a responsibility to take care of its patients.

If they can’t do that — then it’s best they move on.